These 5 Terrible Poker Lessons From "Rounders" Didn't Age Well

5 Terrible Poker Lessons from The Rounders

This article was written by contributor Fran Ferlan.

Rounders is arguably the greatest poker movie of all time. 

Its accurate and realistic depiction of no-limit hold'em has made it a cult classic, and a must watch for every poker enthusiast.

However, upon closer inspection, it also has some terrible poker lessons that might be missed by a casual viewer.

In this article, we’ll take a look at 5 unintentionally terrible poker lessons you shouldn’t be emulating.

Disclaimer: This article was written for fun, so it shouldn’t be interpreted as a critique of the movie itself. 

In fact, this movie did more to inspire me to become a professional poker player than anything else. I have watched it at least 157 times! [Note from Nathan]

Please go watch this movie if somehow you haven't seen it yet.

*Also obviously, heavy spoilers for the movie ahead.

Terrible Rounders Poker Lesson #1: Ignoring Bankroll Management

We are led to believe that Mike Mcdermott is a great poker player, yet he makes an epic blunder right in the very first scene of the movie.

Mike enters an illegal, underground poker game where he buys in for $30,000, his entire life savings, or his entire bankroll. 

Also note that this was a lot more money in 1998 than it is today.

Mike plays well, but ends up losing everything when his full house runs into an even stronger full house.

This is known as a cooler, i.e. a situation where you have a very strong hand, but you end up losing to an even stronger hand. 

These situations aren’t very common, as it’s actually a rare occurrence for one player to have a strong hand in no-limit hold’em, let alone two players.

But when this does happen, it’s absolutely devastating to the player on the receiving end.

This is why you never play with the money you’re not absolutely comfortable with losing at any given moment.

You don’t gamble with your rent money, let alone your entire life savings.

5 Terrible Poker Lessons From "Rounders" You Should Forget

Yet, this is exactly what our protagonist does in the opening scenes. This means he’s either totally reckless at best, or plain stupid at worst. 

And since we’re led to believe that he’s some sort of a poker prodigy, we can probably forgive his transgression as a simple youthful overconfidence. Matt Damon really seems to like playing troubled geniuses.

But here’s the problem: 

Mike doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes at all. 

Instead of this soul crushing defeat humbling him, he takes a poker hiatus, only to be dragged back into the whole ordeal by his degenerate friend later on in the movie. 

What’s worse, he does the exact same asinine thing again later, only this time he doesn’t gamble with his life savings (which is bad enough) but with the money he borrows from his professor and mentor.

He comes out on top in the end thanks to pure dumb luck by flopping a nut straight.

In an alternate timeline, however, he loses to a suckout, and both him and his friend get beaten up and broke at best, or dead at worst.

When playing poker, you should only play with the money you’re absolutely comfortable with losing at any given moment.

This is because poker has a short-term luck element involved, meaning you can still lose despite playing perfectly.

Winning poker is not only about knowing which cards to play in which position. It’s also about risk management, a lesson that seems to be lost on Mike despite him being a poker genius.

This just goes to show that wisdom and intelligence aren’t always correlated.

Check out Nathan’s recent video for the 5 newb mistakes you absolutely must avoid at the poker table.

Terrible Rounders Poker Lesson #2: Chasing  Your Losses

Most of the stunts that make for a compelling narrative in the movie would lead you to financial ruin at best in real life. 

One of these is chasing losses. 

Come to think about it, the whole movie can actually be viewed as a cautionary tale on the perils of gambling addiction.

While Mike isn’t the one who’s racked up a bunch of debt, he is enabling his friend Worm (played by Edward Norton) in more than one way. This makes him guilty by association. 

Not only that, but he allows Worm to ride on his credit, ruining his reputation and his credit in the process.

Instead of cutting him off, Mike goes on to help his friend to get out of the debt he’s racked up by, you guessed it, more gambling.

And their genius plan involves playing poker non-stop in a bunch of different games across New York for a week straight, with no bankroll and very little sleep.

5 Terrible Poker Lessons From "Rounders" You Should Forget

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Worm even goes so far as to reprimand Mike for failing to call a bluff on a guy, saying, quote: “Look at you, one 64-hour session, and you need a nap.”

For context, our beloved geniuses owe $15,000 in five days, and they have only $1,200 to their name.

To point out the obvious, poker is a long-term game where your skill edge manifests over an extended period of time.

You can’t control how you’re running day-to-day, or even month-to-month for that matter. 

You can’t control the cards you’re being dealt, you can’t control whether or not your draws complete, and you can’t control the actions of your opponents.

All you can do is try to make the best decisions possible based on all the available information, and hope for the best outcome. Over time, you’ll win far more than you lose.

In other words, winning poker is about patience, not about chasing the action.

It doesn’t matter how good of a player you think you are. Poker is a game that humbles everyone who plays it long enough, and Mike doesn’t seem to learn this lesson even at the end of the movie.

Mike is suffering from a common bias a lot of poker players have in common, and that is the illusion of control. 

He thinks he’s more in control of the outcome than he really is. This leads him to overestimate his abilities and play in games way beyond his limits.

But I digress.

Chasing losses is bad enough as it is. But chasing losses when already in debt, and with someone else’s money is egregious.

The fact that Mike happens to get away with it in the movie and everything seems to turn out well for him is irrelevant. 

In the stories, heroes come out on top despite the odds, but in real life, playing against the odds too often will ruin you.

In reality, you will probably play your best when you’re running well, and you’ll play worse when you’re running badly.

The lesson is simple: keep playing when the games are good and you’re playing well. When the games are bad and you’re running badly, quit and live to fight another day.

This is the exact opposite of what most amateur poker players do. When they’re ahead, they stop playing to “book a win.” And when they’re down, they keep playing to “get even.” 

This is a terrible strategy because you’re more likely to get frustrated and tilted when you’re losing. 

This can cause you to make poor decisions, which leads to more losses, more frustration and down the rabbit hole we go.

Sometimes you have to keep playing despite running badly, like when you’re playing in a tournament, for example. But in most other cases, you can call it a day anytime you want. The games will always be there tomorrow.

That is, unless you owe a bunch of money to Russian mobsters in a week.

Check out my other article for the 5 bad poker strategies you absolutely must avoid.

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Terrible Rounders Poker Lesson #3: Winning Poker is All About Talent

From the very first scene, we’re led to believe Mike Mcdermott is some sort of a poker prodigy. That very well may be true, but this doesn’t automatically guarantee him success.

He may be more talented than most, but he’s also arrogant, reckless, unreliable, selfish, and entitled. He lacks work ethics, hangs out with scumbags, and he’s not even above outright cheating.

He redeems himself by the end of the movie in some aspects, but in other areas, he’s just the same as he was in the beginning. 

At least he stops cheating and ditches his loser friend, so that’s something, I guess.

The point is, it takes more than raw talent to succeed in every area, and poker is no different.

Knowing the ins and outs of the winning poker strategy is crucial, but it’s not enough to achieve long term success in this game.

It takes patience, perseverance, as well as the ability to learn from your mistakes.

If you think you already have it all figured out, you can’t learn anything new.

All the great poker players continually work on improving their game even though they’re already far ahead of their competition. 

They didn’t get great results by being complacent, but by constantly pushing the edge of their abilities.

To do that, you need a certain dose of humility, and the willingness to admit you’re wrong when confronted with your shortcomings.

Mike, on the other hand, already thinks he has it all figured out.

He can spot all his opponent's tells quickly (more on that later). 

He also fails to listen to the advice of people with more experience than him, thinking he knows best. 

There are a lot of talented poker players out there, but raw talent can only get you so far. 

People like to say that some people are more successful than others because of some God given gifts they weren’t blessed with, like intelligence, natural beauty, being born into wealth and so on.

It’s true that you can’t choose the hand you’re dealt. But you can choose how you play it.

Some people have more going on for them than others, but fail to achieve more than those who have less.

You know a bunch of very intelligent, but useless people. You also know a bunch of people who may not be the brightest, but make up for it with hard work and grit.

At the end of the day, what’s bestowed upon you doesn’t make you who you are. What you do with what’s given to you is what counts.

Terrible Rounders Poker Lesson #4: Reading Too Much Into Physical Tells

Physical tells are an important aspect of poker, but their importance is blown way out of proportion in the movie. 

While they can be useful at times, it’s worth noting that they are only a piece of the puzzle, so you shouldn’t base your hand reading exclusively on physical tells.

A lot of amateurs make the mistake of reading too much into tells, thinking they need to become a body language expert to excel at poker. 

Reading your opponent’s body language is important, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not exactly hard science.

Physical tells are unreliable at best, and can lead you to totally wrong conclusions at worst.

In order for a tell to be reliable, a player needs to give it off unconsciously and routinely.

5 Terrible Poker Lessons From "Rounders" You Should Forget

Since decent poker players know about tells, they’ll do their best to not give off anything with their body language.

They may even go so far to intentionally give off so-called reverse tells to deceive you.

So instead of trying to read your opponent’s micro-expression, you’re better off paying attention to other factors, like showdown hands, betting patterns, and so on.

This is discussed in much more detail in Modern Small Stakes.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it can take some time before you can come up with any sort of conclusions about your opponent’s game based on tells.

No two players are alike, so there are no universal tells that would indicate someone has a weak or strong hand.

What may be a sign of weakness in one player may be a sign of strength in another player.

For example, let’s say your opponent is very quiet during the hand. What could that tell you? 

They may be bluffing so they don’t want to draw too much attention to themselves. They may have a monster hand so they want to appear weak. Or they may just be a naturally quiet person.

Either way, you have no way of knowing for sure, and reading too much into it is counterproductive. 

This brings us to probably the most egregious scene in the whole movie, the judges game.

Mike walks in the room in the middle of the game, then proceeds to read everyone’s hand blind. 

Everyone is thoroughly impressed and they ask him how he did it, and Mike proceeds with this genius exposition:

“Well, you were looking for that third three, but you forgot that Professor Green folded it on fourth street and now you’re representing that you have it. The DA made his two pair but he knows they’re no good. Judge Kaplan was trying to squeeze out a diamond flush but he came up short, and Mr. Eisen is futilely hoping that his queens are going to stand up. So like I said, the Dean’s bet is $20.”

I’m not even going to try to unpack this one, except for pointing out the obvious fact that this whole piece is just jargon-filled gibberish. 

While admittedly a cool scene in the context of the movie, it makes no logical sense whatsoever. There’s no way you can read one player’s hand, let alone everyone’s hand, just by observing the action for a minute or two. 

When hand reading, you can rarely, if ever, read your opponent’s exact hand. 

Instead, you put your opponent on a RANGE of possible hands they can have based on their actions, then you progressively narrow down the range street by street.

This scene is obviously over the top. The problem is not that it’s not realistic. It’s a movie, and some suspension of disbelief is necessary if you want to enjoy your watching experience. 

But what irks me about this scene in particular is the fact that it’s so over the top compared to the rest of the movie. 

Other poker scenes, while enhanced to create drama and tension, are entirely believable, and they aren’t unlike something that you can actually encounter at the felt. 

This scene, however, is just pure fantasy.

What makes this movie so great in the first place is that it doesn’t use poker purely as a gimmick, but something that builds the narrative of the movie. 

When Mike loses a huge pot, we sympathise with him. When he triumphs, we cheer him on. 

In this scene, however, poker is used in a gimmicky way to showcase Mike’s genius. But did it really have to be so over the top and make so little sense, especially compared with the rest of the movie?

I understand that the producers are always going to take liberties with realism in order to create compelling moments, but this scene makes it hard to suspend your disbelief.

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Terrible Rounders Poker Lesson #5: Playing With Your Ego

Mike continually lets his ego get the best of him time and time again. Even by the end of the movie, he doesn’t seem to learn his lesson.

His ego makes him play in games beyond his bankroll, chasing action, and outright disregarding the advice from people who want the best for him.

This is probably why several quotes from this movie made my list of the top 105 best poker quotes of all time (first Rounders quote comes in at #2!)

The worst thing is that at one point, he outright acknowledges that poker is not about pride or ego, and in the very next instant he proceeds to let his ego get the best of him.

When he plays against Teddy KGB (the main antagonist) for the second time, he quickly doubles up and successfully pays off his debt. 

He also has some money left over to pay back to his professor who gave him the money to get him out of trouble. 

The very same money Mike uses to gamble against the guy he owes the money to in the first place. Genius plan, I know.

But just as Mike is about to walk away from the game without any broken bones, he gets goaded to keep playing. 

Instead of showing restraint and choosing to be a bigger man (maybe even show some character growth), he gets his fragile ego hurt and gets right back at the table, risking everything all over again.

And that’s not even the only time in the movie that Mike’s ego gets the best of him. 

When he tries to convince his friend Knish that he has what it takes to succeed, he tells a story about the one time he won a pot against the legendary Johnny Chan, who makes a cameo appearance in the movie.

Ironically, this scene just goes to show that Mike is arrogant and doesn’t have what it takes.

We flash back to a scene where Mike is playing in a casino when Johnny Chan walks in to play. Despite not having a bankroll for it, Mike sits down at Chan’s table. 

After playing for a while, he decides to take a shot and play back at the world champion.

He successfully bluffs him out of the pot and he feels very good about himself. This, he says, is proof that he can play against the best in the world and win.

Coincidentally, this whole episode compels Mike to risk his whole bankroll against KGB in the first place.

To point out the obvious again, winning a single hand of poker, even against the world champion, doesn’t mean anything.

Mike may be talented, but he has a lot left to learn.

Upon rewatching the movie, it’s obvious that the true hero of the movie is Joey Knish, a true rounder.

Knish is able to make a living from poker and provide for his family while doing something he loves. He is not concerned with the trappings of fame and fortune. 

He may have never won a bracelet, but he also never owed money to Russian gangsters or got beaten up by cops. 

That’s a win in my book.

Check out Nathan's video for the 5 things that separate winning poker players from the rest.

5 Terrible Poker Lessons From Rounders - Final Thoughts

Rounders is a great movie, and arguably the best poker movie of all time. 

By the way, in case you are curious, due to the success of this post, I have now written the 5 best poker lessons to be learned from this legendary movie as well.

No matter how you cut it though, Rounders helped propel poker into the mainstream, and it remains a genre classic after all these years.

In fact, this movie, coupled with Chris Moneymaker's shocking 2003 WSOP victory, were the twin pillars that got me into this game and caused me to eventually quit my job and turn pro.

This movie helped inspire an entire generation of poker players, including myself.

Now sure, Rounders fails to deliver much of any advanced modern poker strategy, but it is a Hollywood movie after all.

It’s fun and entertaining to watch, and even though I riff on Matt Damon a lot, I still personally thoroughly enjoy the movie.

It’s just about bringing in a different perspective on some subtleties that may have been missed by the casual viewer.

Some points may be reading too much into the material, or being too nitpicky, and fair enough. 

It’s just a movie after all, and it does what it’s supposed to do well: it tells a great story. It’s also entertaining as well, so it gets a free pass for all of its transgressions in my book.

Lastly, if you want to know the complete strategy I use to make $2000+ per month in small/mid stakes games, grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

These 5 Terrible Poker Lessons From "Rounders" Didn't Age Well